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The Art of Artie Shaw

The clarinetist, once one of America's biggest stars, foresaw the vulgarity of today's culture.
The Art of Artie Shaw

Sixty-five years or so ago, the biggest star in Hollywood, as well as the biggest stud, was a clarinetist whose combination of good looks, extraordinary musical talent, and great intelligence made him the brightest figure under the California sun. His name was Artie Shaw, but he was born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky, the son of Jewish immigrants. Artie married eight times and among his wives—check this—were Ava Gardner, the smoldering beauty from the deep South that drove men mad, including Frank Sinatra; Lana Turner, the blonde that went though men like a Panzer division through French infantry; Kathleen Windsor, the novelist and author of Forever Amber; Evelyn Keyes, Scarlett O’Hara’s younger sister and later the great love of director John Huston; and some others whom I’ve never heard of.

But wait. Artie wasn’t finished. He left my personal favorite, Betty Grable, at the altar. Can you imagine leaving Betty and her million-dollar (of that time) legs waiting in front of a justice of the peace while you were out playing the clarinet with some buddies? Betty was the all-American cheerleader type, with the best gams in town, a pouty mouth surrounded by white-white perfect skin, and an attitude that was deliciously wholesome as well as extremely sexy. Try and top that today, you Hollywood uglies.

One of the few that escaped Artie was Rita Hayworth, and there was another great seductress. Just think “Gilda” and you’ve got my point.

When Shaw threw in the towel, he was making $60,000 per week, a colossal sum in those days, when his band was number one in the United States. The reason he quit was because he saw the coming of the cacophony that today represents our culture. He wrote Duke Ellington a letter saying that dishonesty, lack of dignity, cheapness, shoddiness, and ignorance were becoming the taste of the masses. He lived to a very old age incognito in Los Angeles, writing a book he never finished that ran to millions of words investigating the possibilities of language.

Artie concluded all his concerts by hitting a cosmic high with his C at the end of his own creation, “Concerto for Clarinet.” Here are some of his greatest hits: “Begin the Beguine,” “Frenesi,” “Star Dust,” and hundreds of other recordings I was lucky to hear time and again while growing up. Shaw hired Billie Holiday, Mel Tormé, Buddy Rich, “Hot Lips” Page, and many others. He volunteered for the Navy in World War II, saw action, and performed under fire in the Pacific, something that our last three presidents would deem a very dumb act, I am sure.

Even his great rival, Benny Goodman, apparently not a very nice man, conceded that Artie was the tops. Duke Ellington called him his idol.

So, there you have it. A very good-looking man who is the world’s greatest clarinetist and takes the greatest beauties America has produced as wives and mistresses, who collects 15,000 books and gives it all up because he is also a prophet and sees where our culture is going. I’m sure some vulgar wise guy asshole in Hollywood might think him a nutcase, but if only we had more such nutcases around. Just imagine what Artie Shaw would think or say about today’s rock scene. Or the Kardashian women.

Whereas the ancient Greeks preferred and trusted only the beautiful—Socrates was an exception—the egalitarian society of today prefers and trusts the homely. The freaks. How in heaven’s name can Madonna or Jennifer Lopez be taken seriously and be paid for being ugly? Those oversized lips of that ghastly Angelina Jolie would be called une deformation professionnelle by the French, and they would be right. Poor Jennifer Aniston looks like a maid my parents once had, not a movie star, and don’t get me started on Paris Hilton. Her fathomless vulgarity is matched only by her physical obscenity.

These are times for the odious, the untalented, the ugly, the hirsute, the cacophonous so-called rock stars. Artie saw it coming and did the right thing. The trouble is I can’t even get my children to listen to his recordings—you can lead someone to the well, but it doesn’t mean they’ll drink. Oy vey!



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